My Quest to Watch ALL Available Doctor Who Episodes: Serial 6 – The Aztecs

This post may contain spoilers about classic and current episodes of Doctor Who.

Spoiler Alert:  This series of posts will contain spoilers about classic and possibly current episodes of Doctor Who.

The Aztecs is the 6th Doctor Who story. It consisted of 4 episodes, airing weekly, starting on May 23rd, 1964.

When someone asks you if you’re a god, you say “YES”!

The Doctor and his companions (Ian, Barbara, and the Doctor’s granddaughter Susan) land in Mexico in the 15th century inside the inner sanctum of an Aztec tomb. They exit a one way secret door, making it impossible to return to the TARDIS. Barbara is able to exploit her expert knowledge of this time period to impersonate the long dead high priest Yetaxa, and so is treated as a messenger from the gods.

Barbara becomes obsessed with trying to end the Aztecs practice of human sacrifices. The Doctor warns her, “You can’t rewrite history! Not one line!” She ignores him.

Her attempts to forbid human sacrifice puts her at odds with the High Priest of Sacrifice, Tlotoxl, the serial’s primary villain, a man who looks eerily like Snidely Whiplash.

They sure look like their from the same family.

One of these is infringing on a copyright, just not sure which one.

Snidely…uh…I mean Tlotoxl spends much of the story either trying to prove Barbara is not a goddess, or trying to kill her or her “servants.”

After many subplots and plot twists, Barbara realizes her attempt to change the Aztec’s fate is doomed. Ian and the Doctor find a way back into the tomb, allowing our heroes to escape into the TARDIS as Tlotoxl performs the sacrifice Barbara fought to prevent.

What’s Important

This is a truly great episode in multiple ways.

The sets and costumes are lavish by 1960’s standards. The story itself is interesting and well written, and all the actors deliver solid, even exceptional, performances.

Jacqueline Hill, in particular, is superlative as Barbara. Her moral compulsion to end human sacrifices and save the Aztec civilization drive the main plot. Her sinking realization that her attempts are placing her friends in ever greater danger shine through her carefully underplayed performance. This is easily the actress’ finest hour in the series.

William Hartnell delivers his strongest performance so far in the series. His exchanges with Barbara are riveting, especially when he’s barking dialogue with crackling outrage. Later, when he is subtly questioning various Aztecs, he conveys a sense of a sharp mind rapidly piecing together the clues needed to save his companion’s lives.

This story is unusual in the series’ history in that, except for time travelers landing in the past, there are no science fiction/fantasy elements to what happens. No aliens are present, no potential invasions or other fantastical threats to foil, or any of the other traditional hallmarks of Doctor Who. This is a story of modern people trying to alter the morality of an ancient civilization, and discovering the inevitable resistance from those whose power and prestige is grounded in that society never changing.

Sometimes the Villain Wins

The Aztecs is unique in Doctor Who‘s 50 year history in that the villain achieves complete victory at the end of the story.

While Tlotoxl does not manage to kill Barbara, the Doctor, or the others, they are forced to flee or face certain death. At the very end, Tlotoxl is in command of the city, completely free to commit human sacrifices whenever he wants. Anyone who might challenge or abate his bloodlust has been swept aside.

In no other Doctor Who story does the antagonist have so sweeping a victory. The only consolation for the viewer is the certain knowledge that Tlotoxl’s triumph leads inevitably to the destruction of the culture he fought so hard to maintain.

Accept What Cannot be Changed, The Courage to Change What Can, And the Wisdom to Know the Difference

This Aztecs establishes for the first time a central tenet of Doctor Who. Specifically it asserts there are aspects of history which either cannot or should not be changed, even if they are loathsome. At the same time, it makes clear the moral imperative of trying to save as many individuals possible.

Specifically, Barbara’s quest in this story is to fundamentally alter Aztec culture and save their society from extinction. This global rewriting of history is doomed to failure. But her attempts alters the moral compass of Autloc, the High Priest of Knowledge. He abandons the practice of human sacrifice and his position of power so that he can seek a better course for himself. In a real sense, Autloc is saved and sets an example which we can presume others will one day follow.

This dichotomy, the inability to change major events while simultaneously helping individuals caught up in those events, occurs in many Doctor Who stories right up to the present day.

DVD Extra’s

One especially strange special feature is Making Cocoa.  In this animated video two characters from The Aztecs explain the process for turning cocoa beans into a hot, spicy drink.  Mildly interesting at best.

Then there is Designing the Aztecs, an interview with Barry Newbery, the production designer for the serial. While not exceptional, this interview — along with the original pictures, drawings, and shots from the scripts — do put Mr. Newman’s gorgeous sets and costumes into the perspective of the time when he made them. Anyone interested in the details of how shows are created would be well advised to check out this feature.

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Another feature is called Cortez and Montezuma. This is an excerpt from a 1970 Blue Peter Expedition where they discuss the historical Aztecs at the time when Cortez invaded.

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The feature Remembering the Aztecs provides recollections from the actors Ian Cullen (Ixta), John Ringham, (the villainous Tlotoxl), and Walter Randall (Tonila).  Over about 30 minutes they cover all aspects of the show; the other actors, the producer Verity Lambert, the sets, costumes, scripts, fight scenes, the limited availability for retakes, how similar working in early television was to working on plays, the difficulties older stage actors faced when working at the pace required for television programs, and so forth. The conversational nature of the feature and warm personalities of the actors enhance the stories and make this feature quite entertaining and interesting.

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There are two other features which aren’t very interesting. Restoring the Aztecs show comparisons between the original damage footage and the final restored footage. And finally there is a photo gallery.

Next Time

The next storyline is the 7th serial, The Sensorites.

My Quest to Watch ALL Available Doctor Who Episodes: Serial 5 – The Keys of Marinus

This post may contain spoilers about classic and current episodes of Doctor Who.

Spoiler Alert:  This series of posts will contain spoilers about classic and possibly current episodes of Doctor Who.

The Keys of Marinus is the 5th Doctor Who story. It consisted of two episodes, airing weekly, starting on April 11th, 1964. The proceeding story, Marco Polo, is completely missing.

The Doctor Has a Dungeons & Dragons Adventure.

The Doctor and his companions (Ian, Barbara, and the Doctor’s granddaughter Susan) land on the planet Marinus, where the ocean is an acid and the beach is glass. They find a tower with secret entrances, in which reside Arbitan, Keeper of the Conscience of Marinus.

The Conscience is a computer which once kept law and order across the entire planet by eliminating evil thoughts. Arbitan explains how this changed when Yartek, leader of the alien Voord, worked out how to resist the computer’s impulses. Since then, Yartek has been directing the Voord to attack the tower to gain control of the Conscience, and thus the planet.

To foil Yartek, Arbitan hid the five Keys needed to regulate the Conscience. The keys can be found by using travel dials which transport the wearer to preset locations elsewhere on Marinus.

Arbitan has since upgraded the Conscience so it can control Yartek and the Voord again. He sent out various people, including his daughter, to retrieve the keys, but none ever returned. He asks the Doctor et al. to gather the keys together. When the Doctor refuses to help, Arbitan surrounds the TARDIS in a forcefield and refuses to remove it until the keys are returned to him.  

Lacking any other choice, the Doctor and his companions set off to find the keys. Arbitan is subsequently killed by a Voord who managed to sneak into the tower. 

In the subsequent episodes the Doctor et al. encounter various obstacles including mind controlling aliens, a jungle populated by hostile plants surrounding a trap filled temple, a frozen wilderness, murder charges, political intrigue, and so forth.  They also discover a fake key and Arbitan’s missing daughter.  

Yartek, disguised as the now deceased Arbitan, manages to get four of the five keys from the travelers before he is discovered. Ian tricks Yartek by giving him the fake key they found, rather than the real fifth key. When Yartek activates the conscience using the fake key, the machine explodes killing Yartek and his Voord followers. The tower which once held the Conscience goes up in flames. The Doctor and the others hop in the TARDIS, saying goodbye and good riddance to Marinus.

What’s Important


NOTHING? Nothing at all important happens in this story? Seriously?

It is mentioned that Susan is telepathic as a way to explain why she has a total shrieking meltdown in the jungle. One could interpret this as the moment when it was introduced that the Doctor’s race, Gallifreyan/Time Lords, are all telepathic to some degree.

However, in this story Suan’s telepathic nature seems to be a contrived explanation for why she is being more shrill and annoying than usual. Trust me, the mute button is your best friend at this point of the serial.    

What about the unusual structure of this story? Isn’t that important?

This was the series’ first time to use a quest as the underlying motivation for a story. Specifically, one where the overall story depends first on finding a collection of related items. This allowed them to do series of standalone episodes, each set in very different environments populated with their own collection of characters, which were joined by the need to find the hidden keys.  

This type of story would be used infrequently. Most notably, it was used for The Key to Time story arc which would occupy the entire 16th season. Each serial of that season was a standalone story where the Doctor searched for pieces to The Key to Time.

What about Hartnell as the Doctor? Does he do anything interesting?

You can see improvements in all the actors’ performances from when the series started. By this point they are working comfortably together, and developing a solid grasp of their characters. Hartnell, in particular, is beginning to use subtle expressions to slyly imply the Doctor is deducing far more than he is revealing. He has not yet taken over as the central character, that honor still belongs to Ian and, to a lesser extent, Barbara. But Hartnell’s Doctor no longer feels less important than the others. He has become an integral part of the show’s chemistry.

DVD Extra’s

The one special feature of note on the DVD is called The Sets of Marinus. This is surprisingly good, largely because the person being interviewed, designer Raymond Cusic, is refreshingly straightforward about the limitations he was forced to work under.

Features such as these tend to show people gushing about how wonderful it was to be part of whatever their being interviewed about. Mr. Cusic instead exudes the attitude of a seasoned professional who is able to fairly criticize his own work. His dismissive attitude toward the quality of the sets he built, combined with fact ladened explanations for how they came to be created, give real insight into the difficult work conditions which surrounded the early Doctor Who episodes. See the excerpt below for an example of his blunt assessments.

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Next Time

The next storyline is the 6th serial, The Aztecs.

My Quest to Watch ALL Available Doctor Who Episodes: Serial 3 – The Edge of Destruction

This post may contain spoilers about classic and current episodes of Doctor Who.

Spoiler Alert:  This series of posts will contain spoilers about classic and possibly current episodes of Doctor Who.

The Edge of Destruction is the third Doctor Who storyline. It consisted of two episodes, airing weekly, starting on December 21st 1963.

WOW! That Dalek Story Was Expensive! Let’s Cut Costs!

This story takes place entirely within the TARDIS, which meant it could be done very cheaply and much faster than normal.

An explosion on the TARDIS renders everyone unconscious. When they wake up Ian and Barbara have amnesia. The Doctor and Susan are acting very weird and suspect the others somehow sabotaged the ship. Accusations fly and everyone is acting out of character. Barbara (quite correctly) chews out the Doctor. Susan flips out and attacks a sofa with a pair of scissors, perhaps her most interesting character moment.

Clues emerge that the TARDIS is trying to warn everyone of some major danger. The Doctor makes an impassioned, well delivered, speech about the birth of the universe or the solar system; it’s hard to be certain which since substantial portions of what he says is gibberish.

It is discovered that a faulty spring has sent the TARDIS hurtling back to the beginning of time where it will be destroyed.

Yes, that’s what I said, a faulty spring is responsible for everything. No, I’m not making that up, I swear that is what happens in the serial. Why did a bad spring cause amnesia in Barbara and Ian? How did it turn the Doctor and Susan into paranoid, homicidal nuts? Never explained. Everybody just ‘gets better.’

The spring is fixed and disaster averted. The Doctor apologizes for his behavior.

What’s Important

Honestly, not much.

It is revealed the TARDIS is incredibly self-aware, though they don’t go so far as to imply it is somewhat alive as they do in present series.

The Doctor’s apology does mark a watershed moment between him and both Ian and Barbara. From this point forward his relationship to them is less prickly, more warm and collegial.

 DVD Extra’s

The DVD has a number of special features.

In particular, there is Doctor Who: Origins, a serious and detailed look at precisely how Doctor Who came to be made int he first place. This is fast paced and very interesting.

The feature Over the Edge discusses The Edge of Destruction, how it came to be made and the basic elements of the quickly patched together story. Worth watching if you are interested in the practical problems of creating a television show on an extremely limited budget and a very tight schedule.

Inside the Spaceship discusses the creation of the TARDIS set. Nothing too interesting.

Masters of Sound is about the creation of the stunning Doctor Who theme music and iconic sound effects in the Radiophonic Workshop. The special would be better if the people who made it hadn’t felt the urge to splice in unneeded scenes from the show. I guess they found these excerpts cute, I find them annoying.

Next Time

The next storyline is the lost 4th serial, Marco Polo. I shall therefore be skipping forward to 5th serial, The Keys of Marinus.


My Quest to Watch ALL Available Doctor Who Episodes: Serial 2 – The Daleks

This post may contain spoilers about classic and current episodes of Doctor Who.

Spoiler Alert:  This series of posts will contain spoilers about classic and possibly current episodes of Doctor Who.

The Daleks is the second Doctor Who storyline to ever broadcast. It consisted of seven episodes, airing weekly, starting on February 8th, 1964.

Doctor Who Hits the Big Time

What happens in this story, which is overlong and frequently drags, is not nearly as important as what happened because of these episodes. For various reasons, Doctor Who‘s initial outing received less than stellar ratings. Hopes for the series was fading and it faced an early cancellation.

Then the serial The Daleks aired and captured the public imagination in a way very few things ever do. Over the seven weeks it took to air the entire story the show’s ratings grew rapidly. Soon Doctor Who was among BBC’s most popular series. The show was saved and would remain on the air for the next 26 years. During that phenomenal run, and since the 2005 revival, the Daleks would return to threaten the Doctor and his companions many times.

A Simple Story

The TARDIS lands on a planet we eventually learn is called Skaro. The planet is dead, the soil turned to ash and sand, and the plant life petrified into sandstone. In addition, the world is heavily irradiated due to a long ago atomic war, though the Doctor and his companions don’t discover this until much later.

They see an sprawling alien city in the distance; a very impressive miniature for a television series at that time. The Doctor is curious. He lies about needing mercury for the TARDIS in order to force the others to investigate the strange metropolis.

Soon everyone is captured by the inhuman Daleks; mutated, nearly insane monsters who ride around in personal armored vehicles equipped with deadly weapons. In this serial the Daleks are restricted to the city. Their armor requires power from the floors to be able to move about.

A lengthy and complicated series of adventures follows. The travellers become involved with a pacifist humanoid species called the Thals. Ian convinces the Thals they must fight the Daleks or face extinction. More drawn out adventures follow, leading to a climatic battle and the apparent destruction of the Daleks forever.

What’s Important

It is impossible to over-emphasize the importance of this serial in the history of Doctor Who. Beyond saving the show from cancellation, Daleks became the villain for all incarnations of the Doctor. Two Doctor Who theatrical movies were made in the 1960’s, both featuring Daleks as the antagonist. In later years, Daleks were established as the race which fought the Time Lords and nearly won the Time War.

Many details about the Daleks were changed in later serials. Their appearance was altered in subtle ways, the nature of the war with the Thals was changed, they were no longer restricted to a single city but could go anywhere, eventually they could fly, they developed time travel on their own, and so forth.

But certain elements never changed, like their overall appearance, their famous cry of ‘EXTERMINATE’, their hatred of all life, and the fact that every Dalek was actually a mini-Cthulhu inside a tank.

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I mean, seriously, what does an elder god need with a tank?

Yes, The writers of Doctor Who thought THAT needed weapons and armor casing.

A Repeatable Storyline is Born

This serial also established a type of story which became a common trope within the show: The Doctor and his companions land on a planet where a group of “nice people” are being threatened/subjugated by “mean aliens” and they help the “nice people” overthrow the “mean aliens”; the side the Doctor et al. are helping suffer significant casualties over multiple battles. Usually, like in the case of the Daleks, the “mean aliens” are militaristic and frequently reminiscent of Nazis.

This basic dynamic would be used throughout the series right up to present day stories.

 DVD Extra’s

The item of note on the DVD I watched was the appropriately titled featurette, The Creation of The Daleks. An interesting, though not exceptional, summary of how the Daleks came to be, including the cost cutting design decisions which affected their final appearance. (i.e. They explain why one of the Daleks arms is a plunger.)

There was also a photo gallery. Meh.

Next Time

The next storyline is the completely forgettable two part serial, The Edge of Destruction.



My Quest to Watch ALL Available Doctor Who episodes: An Introduction

This post may contain spoilers about classic and current episodes of Doctor Who.

Spoiler Alert:  This series of posts will contain spoilers about classic and possibly current episodes of Doctor Who.

In the beginning…

I have been a big fan of the BBC’s science fiction series Doctor Who since the late 1970’s, when I was a teenager in high school. I first caught a few episodes from its 15th season storyline Horror of Fang Rock while I was on vacation in Florida.

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Yeah, it really is that cheesy.

A few years later, a Superstation in New Jersey began broadcasting episodes on Saturday mornings. Two episodes every week, each part of a storyline which was often longer than many movies. As luck would have it, the first episode I caught was Tom Baker’s debut episode as the fourth Doctor in the story Robot.

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This was a fun Doctor to watch. Utterly unpredictable, witty dialogue, imaginative stories. A show in it’s prime, heading into what was to become regarded as some of the best episodes in the whole series.

Technically Baker appeared at the very end of the preceding story, Planet of Spiders, but that was a regeneration sequence in which he never spoke or even moved.  Not a debut for Tom baker so much as a farewell to the third Doctor, Jon Pertwee.

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Not their best Regeneration sequence.

Over time…

Over the last few decades I managed to watch all the episodes staring Jon Pertwee, Tom Baker, Peter Davison, and much of Colin Baker; as well as the T.V. movie with Paul McGann and the all of the episodes since the 2005 revival starring Christopher Eccleston, David Tennant, Matt Smith; and most recently the 50th Anniversary special, Day of the Doctor, which introduced John Hurt as a previously unknown incarnation of the Doctor who fought in the Time War. I have also seen a some episodes from the years when the Doctor was portrayed first by William Hartnell and later by Patrick Troughton, and a single episode from Sylvester McCoy’s turn in the role.

With all I had watched, there was still much which I had missed. I wanted to see the episodes which introduced such mainstays like the sonic screwdriver, UNIT, Colonel and later Brigadier Lethbridge Stewart, the first reference to the Time Lords, Cybermen, and so forth.

This desire to see the rarely shown episodes of Doctor Who combined with my love for collecting movies and television series. I own all of the episodes since the series revival in 2005, but among the classic episodes I owned only certain favorites from the Tom Baker and Jon Pertwee years, and a small number from the William Hartnell and Patrick Troughton eras.

Befitting a series about a time traveling alien, I saw many of these episodes out of order.  The great strength of Doctor Who is you can take all the stories over its 50 year history and watch them in any sequence without feeling like you are missing something vital.  That said, the show has changed and evolved since its debut. Many things now considered part of the show’s canon simply didn’t exist when it began.  Watching a series from its beginning, in its proper order, allows you to discover the moments when crucial mythology were introduced or altered. It gives a deeper meaning to shows which come later, and a greater understanding of character moments built on a long established history.

A quest begins

I decided it was time to fill in my collection and, at the same time, watch all the episodes right from the beginning, in their correct order. Or rather, I should say, watch all the available episodes. Many episodes and even whole storylines from the Hartnell and Troughton  years were destroyed decades ago. Unless you build a time machine of your own it’s impossible  to watch those lost episodes. Still, that’s no excuse for not collecting and watching what is available.

And so a few months back my wife, Kathryn, and I made a deal. We’d each collect our favorite series (hers is Mystery Science Theater 3000, another show with a high cheese factor and missing early episodes) and every week we would watch a few episodes of Doctor Who and one of her MST3K movies. We’d do both from the beginning and proceed in the order they were first shown, skipping only those stories where either major portions are missing or the surviving video/audio is simply of unacceptable poor quality. We aren’t binge watching either of these series, which would be truly painful given the low quality of many episodes.

Where are we now?

Right now we’ve just finished the 16th Doctor Who story, The Chase, which means we’ve watched about 70 individual episodes. Time-wise we’ve watched episodes from November 23rd, 1963 through June 26th, 1965.

I’ll work up posts for the stories we’ve already watched, and as we go forward I’ll post regularly about our progress, offer my thoughts on the storylines and individual episodes, and remark on important milestones in the series’ evolution. I’ll also note if I find any special features worth reviewing.

My estimate is that it will take us about 5-6 years to watch all the Doctor Who episodes in the classic series alone.  I’ll let Kathryn estimate how long MST3K sill take us to complete, and comment on our progress through that series.

I hope that some fans of the series find these posts interesting, or at least occasionally amusing.  They are mostly meant for myself. Snapshots of my reactions to the episodes I’ve never seen before as well as those I’ve watched many times.  A log of my explorations through the distant past of a series which has become a world wide phenomena.  A fan’s view of a favorite series, with a willingness to poke fun at some of its foibles and a smattering of insights into its convoluted history.